Thursday, June 13, 2024

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: The Mission of the Church in the World

Today's piece is by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Professor of Missiology, World Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary. This piece was originally published on United Methodist Insight and is republished here with the permission of the publisher.

Every other year I have the privilege of teaching a course for aspiring United Methodist elders and deacons entitled “Mission of the Church in the World.” Along with Evangelism, Old and New Testament, Church History, Theology, United Methodist History, Doctrine and Polity, this is one of nine courses that is required for ordination in our church.

I love the title of the class—in fact I love everything about the class. I have taught this course in various settings, modalities, and institutions over the last two decades. Before Covid-19 this course was taught face-to-face both in semester-long and intensive formats. Since the pandemic, I have taught it online and hybrid (some in-person and some online). One of my favorite ways to teach the class is experiential. I have taught the class at Brooks Howell Home in Asheville, North Carolina, and students interviewed retired United Methodist missionaries and deaconesses, as part of the course requirements.

We have combined reading and writing assignments with experiential learning and field trips to ministries that prioritize those who are overlooked by society. We have invited guest speakers participating in God’s mission around the world, and used tools like “Mission Insite” to understand mission opportunities in one’s local community. During these days of reorganizing and refocusing the mission of the church considering our colonial history, it is helpful to reflect on the mission of the church in the world.

The title of the course reflects a change in the way that mission has traditionally been understood. Historically mission has been a one-way street from the center to the periphery. The western Church inherited the traditional mission model from Christendom when the Church and the State were fused together in Western Europe. Following Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the West Indies and the subsequent “Doctrine of Discovery,” the missionaries accompanied colonial expansion to newly settled territories to teach native peoples western civilization. Mission became centered within Christendom and went out to the margins. Mission was an overseas task from “us to them.” Mission started in the Church and went out to the unchurched. This was still the missiological view at the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland with the goal to spread Christianity from Christendom to non-Christian lands.

This traditional understanding of mission started to change midway through the 20th century following World War II. Following Edinburgh a continuation committee formed and the international missionary community gathered every ten years or so to reflect on the mission of the church. There was an inherent imbalance of power between mission-sending and mission-receiving churches that gradually began to change. The self-determination movement and independence movement of formally colonized nations awakened a new understanding of mission.

Six years prior to the 1938 Tambaram (India) Conference, Karl Barth read a paper at the Brandenburgh Missionary Conference where he described missions as an activity of God. A couple years later Karl Hartenstein articulated a similar understanding and coined the term “Missio Dei” to emphasize that it is God’s mission and not the mission of the church (“missio ecclesiae”).[1] The Church also shifted its understanding of mission to be God’s mission. Karl Barth was one of the first theologians to state that mission was God’s activity.[2] About the same time frame Emil Brunner wrote: “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission there is no Church; and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith.”[3]

The next meeting of the International Missionary Council in 1952 was held in Willingen, Germany in the aftermath of World War II. The conference built on the concept prevalent at Tambaram that mission is derived from the very heart of God, especially within the Trinity. The conference findings viewed God as the source of missions. Hartenstein’s concept of the “Missio Dei” or a missionary God influenced the conversations. David Bosch summarized the image of mission developed at Willingen as “…participating in the sending of God.”[4] In other words, God is the source of mission, not the church. This theme continued the movement away from an ecclesio-centric understanding of mission to a mission-centered church.[5] Instead of the church being the one who sends, the church itself is sent.[6]

One of the unexpected twists of missions in the 20th century was that the so-called “younger” or “receiving” churches grew stronger meanwhile secularism weakened the “sending” churches in the West. After the Great Depression, two world wars, and colonial wars, the West was not in an economic or moral position to claim that they had the exclusive right to do mission. In 1961 the International Missionary Committee was dissolved, and the World Council of Churches formed with younger and established churches having equal representation. A Scottish theologian and missionary, Leslie Newbigin, was the General Secretary of the International Missionary Committee and stewarded the transition into the World Council of Churches, where he became Associate General Secretary. He returned to his home country of Scotland in 1974, after serving as a missionary in India for more than three decades and was astounded the decline of Christianity and the secularization in the United Kingdom. He had left Scotland during an era of Christendom, but upon his return found a society that was post-Christian or even anti-Christian.[7] He realized that the West is a mission field. This broke down the traditional paradigm of mission “from the West to the rest.”

In 1983 Newbigin published "The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches" in which he built upon the theological consensus of the “missio Dei.” Newbigin’s work that emerged in the late 20th century with a focus on moving beyond Christendom, seeing the West as a mission field, and the Missio Dei. This is the historical background of the shift to seeing the Church as an instrument of God’s mission in the world.

As we reflect on the mission of The United Methodist Church in the aftermath of schism and division, it is important to go back to our mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I treasure the opportunity to reflect with aspiring United Methodist clergy about the mission of the church in the world.

[1] Hartenstein, Karl (1934). "Wozu nötigt die Finanzlage der Mission". Evangelisches Missions-Magazin. 79: 217–229.

[2] David Bosch, Transforming Mission, Orbis Press, 1991, 389.

[3] Emil Brunner, The Word and the World, 1931.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bosch, 370.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Darrell Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998, 3.

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